By Stacy Ryan
Last week, I traveled with Jane to Lebanon to visit a RIJ supported kindergarten for 4-6 year-old Syrian refugees. The school is run by a local NGO called PARD, and its ultimate goal is to prepare students to pass the challenging elementary entrance exams — the same exams that Lebanese children must take. The students must pass these entrance exams in order to be admitted into Lebanese or UN-run elementary schools upon graduation. Without a solid educational foundation, Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are at risk of being denied a formal education for the foreseeable future. This kindergarten is playing such a critical role in the lives of these children.
The kindergarten is divided into three levels – KG1-KG3. We first visited the youngest class, KG1. They were learning about modes of transportation and coloring worksheets on trains, buses, and boats. The KG2 class was in the middle of a music lesson, singing songs in both Arabic and English. KG3, the oldest class, was busy making turtles out of construction paper and plastic plates. In each class, we discovered happy children who were very distracted by us. At recess, they took turns proudly showing me their missing teeth. When they saw my camera, they flashed peace signs and were eager to see their photos. These could have been any children, anywhere in the world.
We were also able to sit down with the teachers to better understand the challenges they face. Teaching must be a difficult profession even under ideal conditions, but these teachers are dealing with highly unusual situations. One teacher told us that some of her 6 year-old students had never attended school. Before she could even attempt to teach them to read and write in Arabic and English, she first had to teach them how to hold a pencil. In addition to educational disadvantages, refugee children often have to overcome psychosocial issues. One teacher described the challenges of a withdrawn and scared student whose father had recently been kidnapped and his whereabouts were unknown. But in spite of everything, these teachers, who are refugees themselves, are undaunted by these challenges and determined to provide these children with normalcy and the best education possible.
When school ended, the children, donning their Hello Kitty and Spiderman backpacks, quietly shuffled out of the kindergarten and filed onto their bus. While the lives that they return to must surely be far from certain, they each, for now, have a school to call their own.
I was truly amazed by the professionalism and dedication of the staff and the resilience of these children. This kindergarten is not just providing Syrian refugee children with the education needed to pass their entrance exams. It is also providing the students, along with their families, an opportunity for an improved quality of life and hope for a better future.